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Every day, copious amounts of information about individuals is created and exchanged in some fashion on the internet. Much of the time, the creation of that information is voluntary, and the exchange of that information helps support a universe of services that many consumers couldn't do without.
The volume of personal information out there and the ease with which it can be shared, often opaquely, has raised privacy concerns that could be the biggest stumbling block for the evolution of the web.
So what's the solution?
Many privacy advocates believe that companies need to become better stewards of the personal information they collect from their users. To accomplish this, some suggest that companes in some markets, like social media, need to be more closely regulated by government.
But some startups have an alternative approach in mind. Take, for instance, Personal, which was founded in 2009. As The New York Times details, it has built a consumer-controlled "data locker" for personal information and is trying to create a viable marketplace for individuals to share that information with companies:
People keep a single account with information about themselves. Businesses would pay for this data because it allows them to offer personalized products and advertising. And because people retain control over the data in their lockers, they can demand something of value in return.
[Personal] says users will reap either cash or other benefits, like heavy discounts on certain products. In January the White House announced that it would work with Personal and several other companies to allow students to download their academic data from federal databases and store it in a data locker. Personal says it is also working on partnerships with businesses.
On paper, this sounds appealing, but there are obvious challenges. Getting consumers to use these "data lockers" probably won't be easy. Besides the huge issue of trust, inputting data and managing who it's shared with could be quite time-consuming, confusing and inconvenient. And it won't necessarily guarantee that once that data is provided, it won't be used improperly. On the business side of the equation, it's not clear that businesses and consumers would see eye-to-eye on what their data is worth once the value is measured exclusively in dollars and cents.
But more practically, such services seem to ignore the fact that consumers are already engaged in exchanges of value around their personal data. Yes, there are shady companies that lie, deceive and engage in bait and switch tactics, and this is a real problem. But most of us know that when we provide our personal data to a service provider, we're getting something in return. Whether it's free access to functionality (in the case of, say, Facebook) or access to deals (in the case of, say, Groupon), most interactions that result in an individual sharing data are a result of the individual's perception that he or she will receive an adequate amount of value in return.
With this in mind, the introduction of a new set of middlemen to 'help' consumers manage and sell their personal data seems entirely unnecessary.